Bank-Robbing Spree In Land of Al Capone

The "Bulbous Nose Bandit" recently began one of his many successful Chicago bank heists by handing a teller a poem: "This is not fun, I have a gun."

Today, gunpoint withdrawals are spoiling the "fun" for Chicago bankers as never before. Two years of record bank robberies have made Al Capone's home town the nation's No. 4 bank heist capital. Experts have been puzzled by the rise, but speculate that publicity about robberies, the spread of bank branches, and lax security might have spurred the trend.

Others say Chicago tellers have had years of comparative serenity, and the new, higher rates that bring it closer Los Angeles, New York, and Miami - the top three cities for holdups - are more appropriate for a city its size.

So far this year, bank robberies in Chicago's surrounding Cook County and three adjacent counties have surged to an all time high of 164 - a 15 percent increase over the record tally for all of 1995.

Chicago's trend contradicts a 28 percent national decline in bank robberies since 1991, and a sharp fall in major crimes this decade. The Windy City is joined by Los Angeles, Cleveland, Detroit, and Milwaukee, which have all seen more bank heists this year, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

No clues to the crimes

Experts in crime are at a loss to account for Chicago's against-the-grain felonies. "Why ...? We really don't know," says Magnus Seng, a professor of criminal justice at Loyola University in Chicago.

Nationwide, bank robbery tends to ebb and flow, with New York and Los Angeles leading the trend. Cities like Chicago, Detroit, and St. Louis tend to tag along after their coastal counterparts. "Here in the Midwest we're slower to catch on to trends," says Richard L. Block, a Loyola professor who studies violence.

While experts may be at a loss to explain why Chicago isn't slow to catch on to this trend, there are some factors making bank heists attractive to would-be bandits.

The number of suburban bank branches has risen this decade. They offer features of special appeal to bandits, like less stringent security and low teller counters that are easy to leap over, say crime experts.

The sweeping consolidation of Illinois's banking industry has also undermined security, as large banks might overlook the unique security needs of a newly acquired branch when applying a one-size-fits-all security system.

"Local banks might be more concerned with security than a big banking firm that buys them up," says Professor Block.

Bank robbers also might believe that chances of occupational injury are diminishing. "Banks these days have gotten so good at effectively catching these people without people getting hurt and without loss of life," says Chris Hartweg, spokesman for the LaSalle Bank Group in Chicago.

Less violence

"Violence is down because tellers are trained to be as accommodating as possible and avoid any ... confrontation in the bank," Professor Seng adds. "The bank is set up to let the robber do his thing - the money isn't worth the risk of violence."

A desire to ape the latest fashion in lawbreaking may also play a part in the recent surge. "Many ... bank robbers we arrest say they got the idea about robbing a bank by reading about it or seeing it on the 5 o'clock news, so to a degree there is a copycat element," says Bob Long, a Chicago-based FBI spokesman.

But the more fundamental causes for Chicago's bank-robber surge are hard to pinpoint because, unlike other kinds of criminals, they don't necessarily take to crime in response to unemployment, inflation, or other economic trends. And today, Chicago's inflation and unemployment - components of the "misery index" - are low.

While the Bulbous Nosed Bandit has been laughing his way to (and from) a growing list of Chicago banks, nationwide, 3 out of every 4 bandits make a mistake and are caught within 18 months of their crime, says the FBI's Mr. Long.

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